I’ve watched with amusement bordering on embarrassment as various Jewish publications have reported on the announcement that Dr. Mehmet Oz, the world’s most famous physician, has announced that he’s running for the Senate in Pennsylvania. I’ve read about how Oz is of Turkish descent and, given how connected he remains to his parents’ birthplace, he is probably not a friend of Israel.
That’s a vile lie, and few would know that better than me.
It’s a little bit stomach-turning to read such drivel about someone you know so well and who has been such an incomparable friend to Israel and the Jewish community.
Dr. Oz and I became colleagues back in 2008 when we both worked for Oprah Winfrey on the Oprah and Friends Radio Network. There were so many special and legendary people on the network, from Oprah herself, to Maya Angelou, and to Gayle King. But the one I bonded with the most and the quickest was Dr. Oz.
At the time, as is also true now, he was the foremost celebrity doctor on the planet and a cardiac surgeon of world renown. It made no difference. He had zero airs about him. I quickly discovered him to be one of the warmest and most genuine people I had ever met.
Because he has four kids and we have nine, we got along like a house on fire. His family started coming to ours for Shabbat dinners, and his wife, Lisa, a noted Christian theologian, had incredible conversations with me about religion, God and every other subject under the sun. (Lisa moderated my final debate with the world’s most famous atheist, Christopher Hitchens, on the subject of the afterlife, just a year before his tragic death.)
By the time I invited Dr. Oz and his family to join us on a trip to Israel in the summer of 2013, he was arguably the most famous Muslim on earth who was not a head of state. He immediately jumped at the chance to visit the Jewish state with us, and his visit was a media extravaganza. Everywhere we went we were mobbed by media and large crowds of Israelis of every persuasion who wanted a picture with the celebrity doctor. Israel poured its love out on Dr. Oz, and he warmly reciprocated.
We visited Israel’s leading hospitals and medical research facilities. The experts were all blown away by Mehmet’s kaleidoscopic knowledge of his art. He was tinkering with new surgical inventions by Israeli start-ups, giving them ideas as to how to improve them. He was treated not just as a celebrity but as a world-class physician whom the hospitals were honored to host and consult as to cutting-edge care.
The visit culminated in a lecture we delivered together at the world-famous Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa that was attended by their leading doctors and researchers.
I asked Dr. Oz if he wanted to go to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. I told him he’d get flak from those who hate Israel if he visited Judea and Samaria. He didn’t hesitate. He told me that being at the tomb of Abraham was the privilege of a lifetime. He had no fears about the security situation, and the visit to Hebron was unforgettable. Later the same day Dr. Oz joined me in a hora with the Israeli soldiers guarding the tomb in Hebron, a video of which went viral on the Internet and sparked much media coverage.
When we came to the tomb of Maimonides in Tiberias, the press were there in force. They alighted on the fact that the Rambam, a Jew, had been the personal physician to the world’s greatest Islamic ruler. Now, the world’s most famous physician, who is Muslim, was coming to pay homage to the greatest Jewish doctor of all time.
Mehmet’s love for Israel and the Israeli people and his awe at their accomplishments were evident in every place we visited, from the Golan in the North to Eilat in the South.
He was invited to meet prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the meeting was not one of a celebrity visiting the Jewish state but, rather, one of deep substance about Israel’s security needs.
In the years that have followed, Mehmet has proved to be a friend without compare, to me and the Jewish community as a whole. He has spoken almost every year at our annual Champions of Jewish Values International Awards Gala and became close to Elie Wiesel through the gatherings. Indeed, it was Dr. Oz and the late Sheldon Adelson who jointly presented Wiesel with our “Light of the Jewish People” Award in 2015 in Times Square.
I have put countless desperate people on the phone with Dr. Oz who needed medical advice in dire situations. He never once said no. Not when he was with his family. Not when he was traveling. And not even when he was taping his TV show.
The other day a man got in touch with me and asked if his wife could speak to Dr. Oz after a particularly worrying diagnosis. I didn’t even have to ask Mehmet if it was OK. I had agreed on his behalf on so many previous occasions. I arranged the call. Mehmet could not have been more caring and patient. On the spot, he offered not only his encyclopedic medical advice but every contact he had in the medical world who might be able to help the woman.
On the bus in Israel, with all of our kids in tow, he made me replace all the sugary snacks with almonds and nuts, which he personally and liberally distributed to the entire bus. He has always pushed me to live and think more healthfully and positively.
I could fill notebooks with stories of Dr. Oz’s caring for me and my family, and he is, quite simply, one of the finest men I know.
BUT THAT’S not why I’m writing this column. People have every right not to vote for Dr. Oz and to reject his candidacy. What they have no right to do is demonize a good man – especially Jewish media whose issue seems to be that he is beloved in Turkey – when he has been a friend to the Jewish community without compare.
I am not a doctor and cannot evaluate Dr. Oz as a physician, even as I once put on scrubs and watched him perform open-heart surgery and replace a heart valve on an elderly woman and save her life, which was awe-inspiring. When it was over, the world’s most famous doctor went calmly and warmly to her anxious family, told them the surgery had been a success, and that he was available to them for whatever they needed.
But I am uniquely qualified to evaluate him as a man.
I have worked with and befriended celebrities of various types. Mehmet Oz stands out among them for his sincerity, genius and humanity.
So if you want to oppose Dr. Oz the candidate, that’s what democracy is all about. But if you’re in the Jewish community and you want to question Dr. Oz as a friend of Israel, know your facts first, lest we ever appear ungrateful to those who have stood with us for years.
The writer, whom Newsweek calls “the most famous rabbi in America,” has just published Holocaust Holiday. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @RabbiShmuley.